Can money talk? Donations are not free speech

Every time the Senate debates campaign finance reform, Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina introduces a Constitutional amendment that would exempt campaign contributions from First Amendment protection.

Every time this amendment comes to a vote, it fails.

Hollings’ amendment hasn’t received much media attention these past two weeks, but it did come to a vote and did again fail.

Slowly the country will come to grips with the fact that for all its promise, the McCain-Feingold bill will not solve any of the problems associated with our campaign finance regime — special access, special favors, corrupt bargains, legislative shirking and especially public skepticism.

What we want, I think, is a system that prevents money from influencing politicians in any way whatsoever. The beautiful thing is that we know many ways to affect such a system. The one thing that stands in our way is that pesky First Amendment.

Or does it?

Ever since the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. Valeo in the 1970s, campaign contributions have been considered a form of free speech — hence, Hollings’ amendment to override this decision. But is it possible the Court made a mistake on this question?

It seems to me that campaign contributions do not fit the definition of speech. Before 1974, candidates for office did not have to disclose the identities of their contributors. Clearly, big donors did not give money to candidates to express themselves because their contributions were silent to the public at large. They gave money to get their guy elected. Period.

Today, nothing has changed. Sure, we require candidates to disclose the names of (some) donors. But when was the last time you looked at a donor list? When was the last time you heard someone’s endorsement through their donation? I’d venture that the only times were in conjunction with a charge of impropriety. Surely, if they could, donors would still make anonymous donations. Nothing has changed despite the “reform.”

What else hasn’t changed through all the reform battles? Well, big corporations continue to give money to both Republicans and Democrats running for the same office. One of the biggest culprits in our time is Microsoft.

Are we prepared to say that Microsoft is schizophrenic? After all, they are “speaking” in favor of two completely opposite outcomes. No, I think it’s more likely that the company is covering its bases, positioning itself to reap the benefits that come with having helped whoever is in power get there.

Campaign contributions are not a form of speech because they don’t communicate anything — at least nothing coherent. Rather, they are subsidies of someone else’s speech, namely a party politician’s.

Some people think campaign contributions should be unlimited because the amount of money you contribute sends an important message about how strongly you agree with a candidate. I’ve already questioned whether this is actually “speech.” But as to whether it is important for citizens to be able to express the strength of their preferences, I have one more insight.

In this country you have another way to express your choice of a candidate — it’s called voting. Now, if I really, really want George W. Bush to become president, I don’t get to register 100,000 votes for him.

An even bigger problem for this argument is that no matter how strongly the poor feel about a candidate, they will never be able to express their preferences through campaign contributions.

One more thought. Some of the most important free speech occurs on the floor of the House of Representatives, yet there are time limits on that speech. Furthermore, the amount of time allotted to both sides is equal. Why not make the amount of money in campaigns allocated to each side equal?

In fact, across the pond in Great Britain, they do exactly this. Each prospective member of Parliament can spend up to $15,000. They buy leaflets, which they hand out to voters as they walk through their hometowns, meeting them and shaking their hands.

Maybe we don’t need Hollings’ amendment at all.



Phil Fortino is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on Fridays.

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